“Mrs May”, writes the Tory-leaning columnist of the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh, “could not survive an election campaign saying so little so often if people paid attention”. Since so many don’t, “the repetition of slogans in lieu of answers carries no cost”. Fraser Nelson, another Tory, comments in the Spectator: “She seems to think that, if you refuse to give the press anything, the public won’t care. Worse, she seems to be right – for now, at least”. May’s purpose, so Nelson writes, is not to “seek a mandate”, but to evade one. “That’s what this election is really about: a bonfire of these Cameron promises [from 2015]. From 9 June onwards: Theresa time!”
So far May’s election pitch has been more about what she is not promising than about what she is promising. She will not rule out tax rises (i.e., she wants to free herself from the Tories’ 2015 pledge not to increase taxes). She will not, unlike the Tories in 2015, commit to the “triple lock” which pushes pensions upwards. On Brexit, having written a nasty bottom line — create a tight filter on immigrants to Britain from the EU — May has already secured parliamentary votes for her to negotiate the Brexit deal without accountability or control, or even to crash out of the EU without a deal if she wants to (“no deal is better than a bad deal”).
The Daily Mail front page headline on 19 April summed up how she sees the election serving her Brexit drive: “Crush the saboteurs”. That is, strengthen her position against all who ask questions, raise criticisms, demand information. Probably the Tory manifesto, when it is published on 8 May, will contain, at least for form’s sake, a few gimmicks. The one most widely trailed is a voucher system to give tax breaks to people paying for care for elderly parents.
But the gist is that the Tories want authority for long enough to take them well past Brexit-point. They want a snap vote now: • when the Brexit negotiations have not yet gone sticky, as they surely will at points even if overall they go well for the Tories • when the after-effect of two years of (mild) increase in average real wages — after many years of slump, following 2008 — still holds, and before the new decline in real wages, already under way, hits harder • when Labour’s new left-wing leaders have not yet managed to reshape the party so it can efficiently convince voters that better things are possible • just after the local government elections on 4 May, which are likely to give the Tories a boost • before the scandal about Tory election expenses in 2015 spreads.
After the Brexit referendum of 23 June 2016 we pointed out that the one certain result of the referendum result was not the supposed £350 million a week extra for the NHS, or anything like that, but a more right-wing Tory government with the wind in its sails. In March, before the election was called, the Resolution Foundation think-tank reported: “If nothing is done to change [the] outlook... [2015-20] will go down as being the worst [period] on record for income growth in the bottom half of the income distribution. It will also represent the biggest rise in inequality since the end of the 1980s”.
The Tories’ election campaign is designed to strengthen them against any and all pressure to “change the outlook”. The toxic mix comes from low wage growth — which the government’s own Office for Budgetary Responsibility predicts — and a great wave of pre-programmed cuts in working-age welfare benefits. The percentage of children living in poverty, which soared from 18% to 33% in the Thatcher 1980s, then decreased from 34% to 27% in the Blair-Brown years, has been rising steadily since 2010 and is set to rise further.
There are now three and a half million children in poverty. In some local authorities, that’s around 40%. The worst-hit five are Tower Hamlets, at 43.5%; Manchester, 40.0%; Westminster, 37.7%; Islington, 37.7%; and Newham, 37.5%. The latest figures from the Trussell Trust, the biggest network of foodbanks, show that in the year to 31 March 2017 they distributed 1,182,954 three-day emergency food packages. Of this number, 436,938 went to children. Use of foodbanks was only 40,898 packages in 2009-10, went up to 913,138 in 2013-14, and continues to rise since then.
Meanwhile profits are high. Since 2014 the net rate of return for private non-financial corporations has been back to its pre-2007-8 rate of about 12.5%, a historic high. The Sunday Times gave its 2017 Rich List report the headline: “Boom time for billionaires”, reporting that “London has more billionaires than any other city in the world”. On Wednesday 4 January, the High Pay Centre reported that after just two and a half days of the year Britain’s top bosses had pocketed more money than the average UK worker would in the whole of 2017.
The National Health Service is faltering under the pressure of cuts after cuts, and the siphoning-off of resources into private contractors and increased managerial overheads. Hospitals are jammed full, waiting lists get longer and longer, and death rates are rising. Since 2010, £4.6 billion has been cut from social care budgets. Despite an ageing population, 400,000 fewer people are getting care funded by local authorities. 15% less money is being spent on nursing homes. The Tories will continue on that path.
School funding cuts already programmed will by 2020 take £403, on average, per primary student, and £554 per secondary student. Of the little money available, much will be diverted into starting new “free schools” — with no regulation of teacher qualifications or conditions — and new grammar schools.
As of March 2017, 69% of secondary schools were Academies or “free schools”, and 23% of primaries. Since secondaries are mostly bigger than primaries, there are now more students in Academies or “free schools” than in local authority “community schools”. Even “community schools” now get their budgets direct from the government, bypassing the local authority.
The Tories dropped a scheme to force all schools, by law, to become Academies, but continue a drive to squeeze out local democratic control of schools and replace it by control by central government and by pseudo-markets based on exam league-tables and competitive enrollment. Already by 2015, the “adult skills budget”, for “non-academic” education and training for those 19 or over, had been cut by 40% since 2010.
Further education colleges continue to be cut drastically. In universities, from 2017-18 onwards, the £9,250 fee cap will rise with inflation; maybe the Tories will decide to raise it even further. The burden of repayments on student loans will rise steadily with inflation, since the Tories have frozen the nominal pay levels at which repayments start and at which higher interest rates kick in. Student maintenance grants have already been abolished, from 2016-7. The Higher Education and Research Act, which became law on 2017, opens the way to make university education even more “marketised”.
By 2015-6, the number of public libraries had gone down by 632, or 14%, since 2009-10, to 3,850. Campaigners reckon another 500 are under threat. Many operate with reduced hours or only volunteer staff. The Tories will cut libraries even further.
The Tories’ Trade Union Act, which restricts workers’ rights to collective action even more than the drastic laws of the Thatcher regime, had most of its clauses come into effect on 1 March 2017. These include: • 50% turnout requirement for ballots on industrial action • 40% (of electorate) support requirement for industrial action ballots in public services • two weeks’ notice to be given to employers of industrial action • obligation on unions to supervise picketing • opting in (not out) by union members on political funds.
These clauses promise to cripple national-scale industrial action by public sector unions, the sort of action which challenged the government’s pension cuts in 2011, and thus to protect the Tories’ policy of imposing a 1% limit on public sector money-wage rises at least until 2020 — with increasing inflation, year-by-year real-wage cuts. They also aim to strangle the Labour Party’s funding. All those clauses will be enforced by the Tory government if it wins renewed office on 8 June.
The Tories will ease the way for the lurch to low-paid, insecure work to continue. It has been a marked trend since 2008. Contrary to many claims, it is neither a universal rule, nor an inescapable result of the world market. It is a product of Tory policies and the weakening of trade unions.
Between 2011 and 2016, almost 40 per cent of the growth in employment (excluding the self-employed) was in insecure jobs, zero hours contracts or insecure temporary work. Low-paid “self-employment”, which is often in reality just wage-work with reduced employer obligations, has also risen fast. Almost half the self-employed today are low-paid. If recent trends continue until 2022 — and the Tories’ aim in this election is exactly to make sure that they can continue those trends — by then three and a half million people will be in zero-hours contracts, temporary or agency work, or low-paid self-employment.
No-one knows what the Brexit negotiations will bring. The substantial voices in the ruling class who pushed for a “soft Brexit” — with Britain staying in the Single Market, or at least with “passporting” rights for British-based banks — have fallen back, reconciling themselves to worse because of the Tories’ immovable obsession with cutting immigration. One certainty is this: Brexited Tories, seeking as ever to “sell” Britain as a site for global capital, will want to offer global bosses compensation for the disadvantage of the new barriers between Britain and the EU. Increased division between countries means increased competitive pressure on governments to court global capital. The compensation can only come in the form of reduced social overheads, that is, reduced standards for the working class.
The weight of ruling-class interest both sides of the channel pushes for the Tories and the EU to make a deal that keeps trade restrictions manageably light and preserves areas of common regulatory standards. The Brexit Tories talked about compensating for EU barriers by seeking trade deals elsewhere, but there are no signs of that. Despite Theresa May’s talk of a crash “no-deal” Brexit being an option, and despite some Tories positively favouring a path that makes up for trade barriers by offering Britain as a low-regulation offshore site with workers’ rights and wages slashed, a deal may well be made to limit the barriers. But not without glitches and crises. And the pressure for reduced social provision will only be limited, not reversed.
The Tories made Nissan bosses a secret offer to persuade them to keep car production in Britain. No similar offers or guarantees over Brexit for working-class people! The best guess must be that the Nissan offer was for an arrangement to have production in certain sectors certified as complying with EU regulations and thus able to arrange supply chains across the channel without crippling tariffs and paperwork.
The Tories’ drive against freedom of movement is a cultural and economic blow against the working class. Immigration helps not only the migrants, but also those already here, in terms of enriching culture and of a flow of keen young workers who pay much more into social budgets than they take out.
Without immigration my Further Mathematics classes at school would not exist. I do some Saturday sessions for the keenest Year 13 students across south east London. The best students are of Ukrainian, Romanian, Albanian origin.
Cuts in immigration will increase pressure for social cuts, both by reducing governments’ tax revenue much more than they reduce demand on benefits and services, and by excluding workers on whom the public services would otherwise rely. The Tories evidently think Britain can do without libraries, social care, and adult education. And without maths too? The “strong and stable government” which the Tories promise is “strong and stable” pressure towards a narrower, meaner, nastier, bleaker, more marketised society. Our interest is in weakening and destabilising the Tories.